Intelligent Labels, High Added Value Information


CATEGORY: Printing and labeling BRAND: ITENE

Packaging trends reflect the most common and most potential consumer attitudes, purchasing actions and behaviours.


Inmaculada Lorente & Leticia Requena - ITENE


One of these trends in 2020 is smart packaging, which, through the use of smart labels or directly on the packaging material, provide new information, not available with traditional packaging and with high added value for both, consumers and for all the logistics chain.


Depending on the type of information they provide and the way they communicate, we can find different types of packaging or smart labels available.


When the information is shown by a colour change, these intelligent labels are called indicators. This kind of systems is the most comfortable to use since normally no extra element is necessary for your measurement. Via a simply colour change, users would know if the product is ok or not for its use / consumption / utilization. This information is important for any step in the distribution chain. However, it has been detected that it is in the logistics chain where they add more value, contributing to improving the quality and safety of the logistics chain.


Within this category, there is a wide variety of options, depending on both the parameter that the indicator monitors and what makes it react. For example, whether the colour change is due to an incorrect temperature during transport, whether the container has been perforated, whether it has suffered a shock, …

Inside this category, the best-known indicators are the time temperature indicators. There are many products on the market depending on the temperature that they monitor. Known examples are 3M (USA), CoolVu and OnVu Monitor Mark indicators from Freshpoint (Switzerland), Checkpoint from Vitsab International AB (Sweden) or Timestrip from Timestrip Plc (UK). All these indicators show an estimate of the shelf life of the product depending on the temperature at which it has been stored. In this way, if the product is stored at a temperature higher than adequate, the indicator will inform that its shelf life is less than the shelf life of the same product but that has been stored at the correct temperature.


This type of indicators should not be confused with thermochromic labels which show one color or another depending on the temperature to which they are exposed and this color change is usually reversible. These other types of labels are mostly used for drinks. For example, you can find wine bottles or beer cans on supermarket shelves with these labels.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why this type of labels is more widespread in the market is because they can be used for any type of product since its reaction depends on an external factor (temperature). The case of freshness indicators is different. Although these indicators also report on the shelf life of the product they monitor, their reaction is not due to an external factor, but rather they react with the product itself, detecting its quality and not calculating an estimated quality based on storage conditions.


Freshness indicators detect the gases /metabolites that are generated when the product deteriorates (regardless of the cause), so they must be tailored for a specific product and packaging volume. For example, the same type of indicator would not work for fish products as for meat products. Even within the same product category, if the product is packaged in the presence of oxygen or under anaerobic conditions, different metabolites are generated since the microorganisms that grow are different. Another characteristic that differentiates them from the previous ones is that these indicators, because they must react with the gases generated by the product when it degrades, must be located inside the container and therefore, in the case of food, they must comply with safety legislation regarding, that the temperature time indicators do not have to comply with.


At ITENE, we work intensively to develop, and research new functionalities applied to packaging, so that the consumer’s needs are met. In this sense, due to the great advantage that this type of indicators provides for monitoring products at unit level and improving safety, ITENE is currently working on many projects focused on development of this applications, for instance, within the framework of projects such as SHEALTHY ( or TICS4FRUIT ( These projects are int the process of developing freshness indicators, with the aim of improving the stock of fruit and vegetables, as well as its logistic chain, reducing the loss of food resulting from bad management.


Another type of label, different and complementary to the indicator labels, is the data carrier label. These types of labels help to make the flow of information within the supply chain more efficient. In other words, the main function of these developments is based on ensuring traceability, automation or protection against counterfeit or theft, among others, by storing and transmitting information on storage, distribution, and other parameters. This type of label can also monitor parameters such as temperature, humidity or the presence of gases using chips or microprocessors that measure these variables. However, due to, among other causes, their higher cost and stiffness, their use for containers and packaging in sectors such as food, cosmetics or pharmaceuticals, its use is more limited. For the above-mentioned sectors, printed electronics is promising. Printed Electronic allows the development of these sensors using traditional printing techniques and on any flexible substrates allowing them to be integrated into products, where traditional electronics are not possible. Another aspect to be consider is that, although it is true that currently all components can be not printed, the developments being made are hybrids, i.e. the entire circuitry is printed and, those components that can be not printed are adhered to the print by using complements, such as low temperature curing conductive adhesives. In this way, the circuits can be printed on the current labels, to which the electronics components give rise to a sensor are subsequently integrated.


In order to bring these developments closer to companies, to increase their level of technological maturity (TRL) and their production on a pilot scale, the European Union is financing projects to improve the pilot plants of European technology centres and make them available to companies. On of these projects is the European Project LEE-BEE (, in which ITENE is participating, by upgrading its pilot printing plant for smart packaging. After completion of the project, the partners will form their own entity to which interested companies can submit their ideas and develop and validate them in a real environment.


In conclusion, there are different type of smart labels, depending on the objectives and information to be provided in different links of the supply chain and, in which industry sector are applied. In general terms, the benefits of using smart labels on packaging are multiple: from the transmission and communication in real-time consumption of what happens inside the packaging, thus ensuring safe quality products with a longer shelf life, as well as a marketing opportunity for brands to offer value-added products within a really competitive industry.



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